The engineering teams at Accelo embrace Agile, utilising a combination of Scrum and Kanban. While these help with visualising our work, the systems thinking technique of limiting Work in Progress (WIP) has accelerated our delivery.
Limiting WIP is a technique that individuals, teams, and organisations impose on themselves to limit the number of work items in play. For example, a team of 3 people may decide to have an ‘In progress’ limit of 2. This means that only 2 Stories are being worked on at the same time. A Story needs to be completely ‘Done’ before another can be started.
There are many documented reasons why limiting WIP helps individuals and teams. I often find that teams gravitate towards 100% utilisation. When people are 100% utilised they don’t have time to innovate. Team members don’t have time to help others, try new ideas, or respond to other teams. The cartoon below best illustrates this.
At Accelo what we have found is that limiting WIP changes people's mindset and the way team members interact. By simply limiting WIP team members now ask themselves and the team:
Tools such as Atlassian’s Jira provide an automated way to limit WIP, however using a tool to solely manage WIP limits reduces the key benefit of having the right conversations.
The approach my team has adopted is to hold an open Zoom conversation throughout the whole work day. This has enabled the team to get timely feedback, have instant collaboration and to also sometimes just goof around! It also helps other teams collaborate with each other by jumping directly onto the call without the need to organise a meeting or message the team first.
As one team member states, “limiting WIP mandates constant collaboration”.
By limiting WIP we have reduced our rolling average cycle time by 50% as shown by the control chart below. Cycle time is the amount of time work is in process. In our case this is the time from ‘In progress’ to ‘Done’. Cycle time is important as it reduces queues. Optimising queues results in shorter cycle time, less risk, less variability and higher quality.
Our predictability has also improved by a huge 75%. While this is a whole other topic to be discussed, in short it makes it easier for the Product Owner to plan and meet commitments.
More importantly, the entire team is happy. The developers and testers are enjoying working as a team rather than individuals. The Product Owner and ultimately our users are seeing ‘Done’ work sooner.
Limiting WIP can help teams be more productive and focus on the most important work. My advice is to give limiting WIP a go. Try it for one Sprint and see how it goes. You might be pleasantly surprised by the culture shift and improved productivity that goes with it.
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